Larissa Camilleri knows better than most how heart disease can tear families apart. At 17, she was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart disease which took the lives of her maternal grandparents and has been passed down through her mother to her.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a thickening of the walls of the heart, leading to reduced area inside the heart chambers and a stiffening of the muscle tissue. This can lead to reduced blood flow through the heart and/or disturbed/irregular heartbeats.
“My mum had already had this heart disease for years,” says Larissa. “It has been passed through her blood line. She had three strokes.”
When she was 19, Larissa was fitted with a pacemaker defibrillator to correct arryhthmia (an abnormal heart rhythm). Pacemakers provide low-energy electrical signals to your heart, prompting it to beat in a normal rhythm. Her mum was there by her side, having been through so much of it herself.
"We shared the heart disease. It was our connection."
"When having arrhythmia, mum took me through breathing techniques to stop that from happening.”
At 21, during a regular three-month check-up, Larissa was told she would have to undergo further open heart surgery, a myomectomy to cut away a growth in the heart. The recovery was slow and complicated.
“They didn’t tell me until afterwards that they needed more blood. There wasn’t enough blood and I was losing a lot. I was paper white when I came out of the surgery.”
“It was a long recovery process and I was in hospital for a while. Then after I came out of hospital I had fluid in my lungs and pneumonia, and I had to go back into hospital two weeks after I came out to have my lungs drained… and to check for infections.”
Then, just three years ago, Larissa lost her wonderful mum to heart disease. Her mother was just 48.
"When my mum passed away, I went to a therapist about grievance counselling."
'I was lost without her, I was distraught. I said, “I need to do something about it”.’
Larissa’s therapist suggested she start a hobby, something she loved doing, to help with the grieving process.
‘My mum, always said, “You belong in front of the camera”. I started doing pinup modelling and I started to actually feel good about my body because it was really hard having that amount of scarring all over my chest at 21.'
"I started feeling a lot better about my scars and my body."
Now 27, Larissa has been chosen as a finalist for Pinup Doll Australia and is using the event to share her story and raise money for The Heart Research Institute.
‘I started doing this and I was like “how can I help people from this? How can I be inspirational and create awareness about something that happened to me in a really positive light?”’
“I can bring my story out by showing this.”
And that is exactly what Larissa is doing. Larissa will use the national event in October to tell her story and express why fundraising for The Heart Research Institute is a matter that is close to her heart.
“One Australian dies every 12 minutes from heart disease. I have chosen The Heart Research Institute because I truly believe their work will save generations of my, and other families, from genetic heart disease and they won’t have to go through the pain of open heart surgery to survive.”
Image by Red Leopard Photography